One of the most important cultural centers in London, Kensington is home to a number of well-known landmarks and attractions, including the Royal Albert Hall, lively high streets, and, of course, the iconic Kensington Palace. However, South Kensington’s Natural History Museum is the real draw of this wealthy neighborhood.
Featuring interesting exhibitions like the Life and Earth Galleries, animal garden, and geological collections, this world-famous museum encourages the exploration and appreciation of the natural world and serves as a center of scientific excellence in taxonomy and biodiversity discoveries.
The museum originally opened its doors to the general public in the year 1881. The explorer Sir Hans Sloane was responsible for the donation of a substantial number of these items. Sir Hans was an Irish physician who had a deep interest in natural history. During his travels, he gathered historical objects from all over the globe, which were afterwards put on exhibit in the halls of the museum.
Sloane left more than 71,000 objects to Parliament in his bequest after his death in 1753. The government agreed to buy Sloane’s collection, and then they built the British Museum so that the public could see these items.
The Museum was part of the British Museum until 1963, when it was separated and given its own board of trustees, although it wasn’t formally called the Natural History Museum until 1992.
Sir Richard Owen
In 1856, Sir Richard Owen (the person responsible for giving the dinosaurs their names) quit his job as curator of the Hunterian Museum to run the natural history collection at the British Museum.
Owen was unhappy that the British Museum didn’t have enough room for its growing collection of natural history artifacts, so he convinced the museum’s board of trustees that these national treasures needed their own building.
The New Design
Architect Francis Fowke, who also created the Royal Albert Hall and sections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, was selected to create the museum’s first building in 1864. When he died suddenly a year later, Alfred Waterhouse, a lesser-known architect, took over and began designing the new museum building in South Kensington.
Terracotta was Waterhouse’s material of choice for the majority of the structure since he knew it could withstand the severe climate of London. He had no idea his elaborate Romanesque design would become one of London’s most spectacular structures over a century later.
The style is typical of Waterhouse’s work, although Sir Richard Owen had a substantial influence along the way. He wanted to construct a public museum, which he affectionately referred to as a temple to nature. He made certain that the new structure would be big enough to exhibit new discoveries.
The Natural History Museum has been able to accommodate huge species including as whales, elephants, and dinosaurs because to Owen’s vision and Waterhouse’s architecture.
Museums and Galleries Act 1992
With the official name British Museum (Natural History), the Natural History Museum continued to be recognized by law as a division of the British Museum.
In 1866, the heads of the Royal, Linnean, and Zoological societies, as well as naturalists like Darwin, Wallace, and Huxley, sent a petition to the Chancellor of the Exchequer asking that the museum become independent from the board of the British Museum. The issue was hotly debated for nearly a century. Finally, with the passing of the British Institution Act 1963, the British Museum (Natural History) became an independent museum with its own board of trustees, however the original name was kept despite a proposed modification to the act in the House of Lords. In 1989, the museum changed its name to the Natural History Museum and stopped calling itself the British Museum of Natural History in ads and books for the general public.
Only until the Museums and Galleries Act of 1992 was passed did the museum’s official name become the Natural History Museum.
The Museum’s Evolution
- Geological Museum. The museum combined with the nearby Geological Museum of the British Geological Survey in 1985. The Geological Museum became famous for its displays, which included an active volcano model and an earthquake machine (developed by James Gardner), as well as housing the world’s first computer-enhanced show (Treasures of the Earth). The Earth Galleries were totally restored and reopened in 1996, with the other shows in the Waterhouse building renamed The Life Galleries. The Natural History Museum’s mineralogy exhibits have remained substantially untouched as an example of the Waterhouse building’s 19th-century exhibition approaches.
- The Darwin Centre. The Darwin Centre, which opened to the public in 2009, holds both the Museum’s historical collections and its working scientists. The center’s one-of-a-kind Cocoon building houses the Museum’s most significant plant and insect specimen collections, as well as cutting-edge research equipment utilized by more than 200 experts.
Dippy the Diplodocus
The most renowned exhibit in National History Museum is Dippy the Diplodocus, is a plaster cast duplicate of the fossilized bones of a Diplodocus carnegii skeleton. The original is on display in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The 26-metre (85-foot) long cast was exhibited at the Natural History Museum in London between 1905 and 2017, becoming an iconic symbol of the museum. In February 2018, it started a countrywide tour of British institutions. Dippy returned to the Natural History Institution in June 2022 as part of a temporary exhibition. The replica will then be moved as part of a three-year loan by the museum to another place.
The Natural History Museum at London’s Hintze Hall, the biggest public gallery, was called a “cathedral of nature” when it first opened its doors in 1881.
The Hintze Hall is the first thing you’ll notice when you enter the Natural History Museum; it serves as a gateway to the rest of the building and is well worth a visit.
What’s On Display at The Natural History Museum?
1. Hope: The Blue Whale Skeleton
The Natural History Museum’s central hall has been termed “the cathedral of nature,” and it is now dominated by a massive blue whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling.
Your attention may be drawn to the enormous hanging blue whale skeleton, a 25-meter wonder that depicts a species that was on the verge of extinction. Humans killed over 360,000 blue whales in the first half of the 20th century. The population has begun to recover after being protected in 1966. Hope is the skeleton’s name, and it refers to the optimistic shift she embodies for her species.
2. The Cursed Amethyst
In the mineralogy department, you can find the cursed amethyst, a mysterious object with a strange story. People say that since the amethyst was taken from India during the rebellion of 1857, everyone who has owned it has either killed themselves or died in mysterious ways. It is believed that one owner was so distressed by the amethyst that he put it in a silver box containing fortunate charms and threw it into the river, only to have it returned. It is now surrounded by other rare stones, such as a Martian meteorite and a medusa emerald.
3. Archie The Giant Squid
The Darwin Centre, the most recent addition to the Natural History Museum, was created to contain the museum’s tens of millions of preserved specimens. While there are countless items to discover in both the spirits and dry collections, Archie is the most well-known. You may get close to the uncommon and elusive 8.62-meter-long gigantic squid.
The Natural History Museum’s permanent display is organized into four zones, each of which is designated by a distinct hue.
- The Blue zone is all about zoology and biology. It has a famous gallery of dinosaurs and a popular section with skeletons and reconstructions of large mammals.
- The Green zone is devoted to Earth sciences and includes galleries containing fossils, minerals, and meteorites, as well as the Vault, a unique museum displaying one of the greatest collections of colored diamonds and jewels in the world. The Green Zone also has the renowned Hintze Hall, an imposing room with gigantic specimens, such as the skeleton of a blue whale (which replaced that of a diplodocus, often known as Dippy the Dinosaur, in 2017).
- The Red Zone explores the effects of human civilization on the environment and displays geology, minerals, stalagmites, and fossils.
- The Orange zone is devoted to wildlife, and it features the Darwin Centre, an eight-story cocoon-like structure named after the famed British scientist Charles Darwin.
The Natural History Museum in London is widely regarded as the largest and most important center for research into natural history and the numerous fields that are related to it, is one of the best locations to see in London and merits a prominent position on every tourist’s itinerary.